‘Big Brother is watching you’ – a tribute to George Orwell

Last month commemorated 70 years since the passing of a giant of English literature, George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair).

George Orwell display Brompton Library

Orwell was a man of contradictions who never seemed to fit in anywhere. Born in India in 1903, into a “lower-upper-middle-class” family, Orwell grew up in the English shires, was educated at Eton yet was shot in the neck fighting for socialism. He then curiously became famous for his critique of the Soviet Union and Stalin in Animal Farm.

His writing seems to be driven by a deep desire for fairness and a relentless pursuit of the truth, and his willingness to criticise those who abuse power and language, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, made his allies feel uneasy and his enemies squirm.

Indeed, Animal Farm was initially banned from publication for politically expedient reasons in World War II (at the time, Stalin’s USSR was a useful ally in defeating Hitler and criticism was censored in the suspended democracy of war-time Britain, a situation Orwell despised). These contradictions and hypocrisies, along with experiencing first-hand the bitter betrayals and cynical use of propaganda in the multifaceted Spanish Civil War (Orwell fought with renegade anti-Stalinist Marxist group the P.O.U.M, that was later repressed and outlawed by the Spanish Communist Party), certainly contributed to the overall themes in Animal Farm and 1984.  Ironically in the 1960s, over a decade after Orwell’s death, Animal Farm was challenged in some parts of the USA for being a “problem book” with ‘communist text’ for using such language as “masses will revolt.”

George Orwell display at Brompton Library

Orwell’s determination to tell the detailed, complicated truth and inform the reader using simple, layman’s language stands in contrast to much of today’s shallow political discourse and ‘journalism’, which deliberately misinforms, and is arguably often used to protect the status quo rather than attempt to expose the truth. It must be said these problems of course existed in Orwell’s day, but are they better, or worse now? Orwell’s writing can at least help us find out, as although he died 70 years ago, the clarity of his writing is more important than ever.

Although the dystopian totalitarian Britain of 1984 did not come to pass, one must wonder what Orwell would make of the country and wider world today. Even though I have an aversion to people (often wrongly, in my opinion) ventriloquizing his views for their own agenda, I expect much of it will fill him with horror. Orwell remains relevant because we can still understand the world with his words, which have changed literature forever. What would he make of government institutions like GCHQ’s illegal mass surveillance of UK citizens, and of social media giants harvesting data and selling our privacy, all with our apparent consent? The telescreens in 1984 are now not necessarily on the wall, but in our pockets, with the ability to listen, photograph and video our private lives. And whilst Big Brother may not order us what to do, algorithms made by corporate giants manipulate how we interpret the world on social media which is awash with so much ‘fake news’ it can manipulate elections and referendums. The language of 1984 can also easily describe any authoritarian ‘communist’ regime that exists today: “the party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the socialist movement originally ever stood, and it does so in the name of socialism”. 1984 can perhaps also explain the seemingly endless wars Western countries are entangled in in the Middle East: “The war, therefore if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture… It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that the hierarchical society needs… The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”

George Orwell display at Brompton Library

Although mostly well-known for his novels, he was also a prolific writer of essays, literary critiques, reportage and even poetry. Beyond politics, he also enjoyed writing about nature in his diaries, and in 1946 wrote the essay Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. Orwell also dabbled in food writing; 1945’s In Defence of English Cooking led him to be commissioned a year later by the British Council to write an essay on British food to promote relations abroad. He described British cuisine as “a simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous diet” where “hot drinks are acceptable at most hours of the day”. Further writing in 1946 instilled Orwell’s quintessential Englishness: that year he wrote an essay entitled ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, within which he lays out an 11-point plan for making the perfect cuppa (yes, you really should put the milk in last).

David, Brompton Library



Love stories from our Biography Collection

In honour of Valentine’s Day, our February display of books from our Biography  Collection at Kensington Central Library is a bouquet of the joys and pains of romantic love.


We have stories of love transcending cultural barriers – Kate Karko left London to join her husband in Tibet, while as recounted in Sword and Blossom, Arthur Hart-Synot and Masa Suzuki breached the barriers between Edwardian England and Japan to nurture their love.  Barriers of class rather than continents were crossed by Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, one of the rare marriages between upper and working class people in a Victorian England obsessed with class distinctions – this gulf was also negotiated by the artist Ford Madox Brown, whose unmarried cohabitation with Emma Hill raised eyebrows; Into the Frame by Angela Thirlwell examines Brown’s love for her and for three other equally unusual women.  His romantic relationships inspired his work, as did the love of Gertrude Stein for Alice B. Toklas, of W. H. Auden for Chester Kallman, and of Anton Chekhov for Olga Knipper.

Terrible circumstances have strewn some loves with unimaginable obstacles – the poet May Cannan immortalised her fiancé in poems as he served in the trenches of World War One; Helen Drysdale spent years searching for Gheorghe Cupar, who had disappeared into the brutal Romanian penal system during the Communist era; Betty Schimmel survived the Holocaust without hope of ever seeing her first love again, but miraculously re-found him 30 years later.  In An Act of Immorality, John Carr charts the suffering of he and his wife Cynthia; he was white and she was black, so in the 1960s South Africa where they met, their love was a crime.  So too was the love of Oscar Wilde for Lord Alfred Douglas; Douglas’s father’s virulent homophobia found its outlet in the bigoted laws of the time, and put in train a sequence of events that ended with Wilde in Reading Gaol.


Even without the cruel interventions of repressive regimes, we know that not everything in the garden of love can always be rosy, and we have stories of relationships facing illness both mental and physical, and crises of infidelity and deception.  Lillian Ross writes movingly about being “the other woman” of New Yorker editor William Shawn for decades, and Julie Metz discovered her entire marriage had been based on lies.  Dylan and Caitlin Thomas experienced a love triangle of a different kind, with the third party being alcohol.  David Helfgott’s wife Gillian describes loving in the shadow of mental illness, as does Elaine Bass, whose challenges were kept secret at a time when such problems were taboo. John Bayley’s tender accounts of caring for his wife Iris Murdoch as dementia changed everything except their love, are classics of understated devotion.


Some infamous love stories ended in shocking crimes of passion and, in the era of the death sentence, ended the lovers’ lives – the romantic obsessions of Edith Thompson and Ruth Ellis led both to the scaffold; both of their sentences are now widely viewed as grotesquely unjust, and both added momentum to the fight to end the death penalty. These ill-fated women’s stories kept the newspapers flying off the newsstands;  comparable scandal and obsessive coverage by the media of the 18th and 19th centuries centred around “adulteresses” Lady Wyndham and Caroline Norton.  Their stories tell us much about the messy and unpleasant complexities of aristocratic marriages gone sour amongst the glamour of silks and brocades.  On a lighter note, Round Heeled Woman tells the hilarious and surprising story of what happened when Jane Juska placed a very candid classified ad looking for a sexual partner in her retirement.

In looking at this most universal of subjects, we have tried to represent the lives of ordinary and obscure people alongside the famous.  What happens when celebrity affects a love story – as in the case of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton?  How does a marriage react to self-imposed, adventurous challenges – as when Gwyneth Lewis and her husband Leighton decided to sail across the Atlantic? How did the huge social changes of the 20th century affect the balance of power in relationships like those described by Ruth Brandon in The New Women and the Old Men?

All human love is here – come and find a love story to transport you, or to help you look afresh at your own relationships.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library




Chelsea Library’s special reading events: a recap

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers
who participated in Chelsea Library’s reading events in 2018 and this year. A big
thank you and here’s to many more in 2020!

Our next reading event is on Tuesday 21 January when we will meet Ruth Galloway and read from ‘The Crossing Places’ by Elly Griffiths.

What is so special about Chelsea Library’s reading events? Well, we  read extracts from the books aloud; we share favourite moments and discuss relevant issues and characters. But, if you just want to listen and comment, and do not wish to read, that is fine too. You do not have to be a book club member to join us either. Sometimes readings are linked with a film or a TV series, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables and Gerald Durrell’s The Durrells.

An Evening with Tolstoy, in September 2018, marked the 190th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birthday. That was our first such event and we focused on ‘Anna Karenina’ We watched a few remarkable moments from film adaptations, and then passionately commented about the right or wrong choices of actors in these films. We read in English, Russian. Italian and Serbian, completely oblivious that one of the guests present was one of Tolstoy’s descendants. Amazing!

In October 2018 we read from the Great War diaries and letters written by female doctors and nurses.

Last December we met to celebrate the 175th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Since that time, this Ghost story of Christmas has become an irrefutable symbol of Christmas, and Marley and his companions – ghosts of Christmas past, present and future –have become some of the most popular ghosts in literature. So, gathered enthusiastic readers took part in reading my abridged dramatized version of Dickens’ classic and we all had a great time playing Scrooge, Marley, Bob, Tiny Tim … and eating mince pies.

For this December I decided to stay within the supernatural milieu and we read extracts from the ‘Haunted house’. If you have not read it before, it is never too late. Please, read these paragraphs to give you a flavour what you can expect. It is funny, it is witty – Dickens at his best. Serve with mince pies and brandy cream, as we did. Delicious!

“It was a solitary house, standing in a sadly neglected garden: a pretty even square of some two acres. It was a house of about the time of George the Second; as stiff, as cold, as formal, and in as bad taste, as could possibly be desired by the most loyal admirer of the whole quartet of Georges. It was uninhabited, but had, within a year or two, been cheaply repaired to render it habitable; I say cheaply, because the work had been done in a surface manner, and was already decaying as to the paint and plaster, though the colours were fresh.”

After first few weeks of living there the narrator’s state of mind became “so unchristian”. “Whether Master B.’s bell was rung by rats, or mice, or bats, or wind, or what other accidental vibration, or sometimes by one cause, sometimes another, and sometimes by collusion, I don’t know; but, certain it is, that it did ring two nights out of three, until I conceived the happy idea of twisting Master B.’s neck—in other words, breaking his bell short off—and silencing that young gentleman, as to my experience and belief, forever.”

Back to earlier this year and to honour my French readers, I chose Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ for January 2019.


When I had ‘Hamlet’ in mind, the idea was to involve the Danish Embassy and talk about Helsingborg / Elsinore castle. For somebody like me, with English as a second language, the challenge of reading Shakespeare aloud (and not to kill the beauty of the masterpiece in the process) was a daunting prospect. That worry proved to be needless. Everyone present was reading Shakespeare with such ease, as if they were eating Victoria sponge cake and drinking English tea. Fantastic! (The Danish Embassy were too busy to spare anyone, but I had to go to Copenhagen and visit Hamlet’s castle. Could not find anything rotten there.)

Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ followed. We watched extracts from Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation, laughed at Mr Collins, argued as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy did, and even had heated discussion with a Jane Austen-expert who was in attendance. Marvellous!

Our June reading session was dedicated to holidays, to Corfu, to Gerald Durrell and his fantastic book ‘My Family and Other Animals’. Who could blame the Durrells for moving to Corfu after this kind of August in Bournemouth?

“July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach-huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, frothchained sea that leapt eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore. The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above the house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly. It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.”

So, the Durrells moved to Corfu, in 1935, ‘like a flock of migrating swallows.’ The lush green landscape greeted them on their arrival.

“Halfway up the slope, guarded by a group of tall, slim, cypress-trees, nestled a small strawberry-pink villa, like some exotic fruit lying in the greenery. The cypress-trees undulated gently in the breeze, as if they were busily painting the sky a still brighter blue for our arrival.”

Talking about people and animals we discovered that one of the readers, Emina, featured in Maria Perry’s book ‘Chelsea Chicks’, with a story that involved her very social parrot.

In September 2019 we had a guest speaker, Sir John Nott, who talked about his book ‘Memorable Encounters’, in which he selected twenty famous people who made a distinctive impression on him, from Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell, to Robin Day and Ted Hughes.

Sir Nott’s career in politics and business has given him a unique perspective on some of the key events in British public life. The gathered audience were obviously charmed by his witty comments.

In October I was so happy that Simon Brett accepted my invitation and included Chelsea Library in his busy and dynamic schedule. Simon is a renowned author of comedy thrillers, mystery who-done-it novels and has written to date 106 novels. He is best known for his Mrs Pargeter novels, the Fethering series and the Charles Paris detective crime series. In 2014, he was presented with The CWA Diamond Dagger and in 2016, he was awarded with OBE for his services to literature.

Simon talked about his career, his books and characters and we laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

Here is an extract from ‘Mrs Pargeter’s Principle’, which he read to the audience.
It is just after Sir Normington’s funeral.

“Helena Winthrop, in designer black, did not look prostrated by grief, but then she had been brought up in the upper-class British tradition that any display of emotion was unseemly and embarrassing. Also, her face no longer had the capacity for much change of emotion. Feeling the approach of age, she’d had some work done, which had left her with an expression of permanent surprise at how old she was.
She had acted as hostess at many public events for her husband and appeared to bring the same professionalism to this one as she had to all the others. The absence of Sir Normington on this occasion was not something to which she thought attention should be drawn… though her guests did seem to want to keep talking about him.
Mrs Pargeter, experienced in widowhood, wondered whether Helena Winthrop would fall apart into a weeping mess the minute she got back to her empty Mayfair home, but rather doubted it. Unshakeable stoicism was ingrained into women of Helena’s class. She had spent so long suppressing her emotions, Mrs Pargeter reckoned, that she wouldn’t recognize a genuine one if it bit her on the bum.”

Edited to add this part – Simon sent us this lovely quote  in response to this piece and we thought we’d share it with you.

I greatly enjoyed my visit to read and talk at Chelsea Library. The audience was acute and perceptive, a legacy of the series of events which had been set up to encourage reading in the borough. I remember, when I first started doing library talks, the plea ‘Has anyone got any questions?’ used to be followed by a profound silence and a lot of people looking at their feet. That, I’m glad to say, is no longer the case. The growth of book groups and events, like those set up by Zvezdana Popovic in Chelsea Library, have ensured a much readier and more informed response. As an author, I always find such sessions fascinating, because they always make me question – and sometimes even make changes to – the way I write. So, keep up the good work, Zvezdana.


I hope that you have enjoyed sharing this recap from our previous reading events. One of our future events is definitely reserved for the Brontë sisters. Tell me which book (or author) you would like to be included and we’ll go from there.

Once again, best wishes.
God bless us, everyone!

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

The fall of the Berlin Wall

This month’s display from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall .

9th November is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall had been the most potent symbol in Europe of the Cold War separation between the Communist USSR and its satellites and allies on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other.

The evening of the 9th of November 1989 was a decisive point in the ending of this separation, as the Berlin Wall quite suddenly ceased to function as a meaningful barrier in a divided Germany, with people from both sides starting to move freely through checkpoints and literally over the top of the structure.

Our display of books from our special Biography Collection focuses on the key political personalities associated with this uniquely resonant moment, and also memoirs of ordinary people’s lives behind the “Iron Curtain”.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Extra ordinary lives from our Biography Collection

This month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library gives us a holiday from the famous, the illustrious, the eminent, the idolised, the household-named, the great, the infamous and the notorious that inhabit our collection.

As well as housing many books about those we are likely to have heard of, the collection is also home to many memoirs of ordinary people with no special claim to being remarkable.  Often the only publication of a person who, perhaps looking back on a childhood in a long gone age, feels moved to record what everyday life was like back then, these books are fascinating records of the lives of ordinary working men and women.  Families, school, industry, war, immigration and emigration – all of these subjects are examined by a multitude of voices.

We can find evocations of particular times and places preserved for ever by those who, without ever intruding into the public eye, shared the lives of the man and woman in the street (or in the field, or on the mountain).

Location is often important in these kinds of books, with the authors striving to recreate a very specific corner of the world. Many London neighbourhoods feature – Lambeth in Mary Chamberlain’s record of the lives of working class women from 1913 to 1989, Bethnal Green whose atmosphere of the 1920s-40s was described by Doris M. Bailey, Blackfriars where Bella Burge ran a boxing ring from 1910, Islington where Gill Brason’s stint as a park keeper in the 70s shows us a neighbourhood on the brink of huge change.  Many regions of the UK, both rural and urban, are also given a voice – John Ackerman’s South Wales, Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals, Arthur Barton’s Jarrow, J. J. Bagley’s three centuries of Lancashire diaries; Anne Burling’s East Anglia, James Maggs’s Southwold, to name just a small sample.


We can also eavesdrop on ordinary lives around the world – a boyhood in Sierra Leone in the early 20th century is hauntingly described by Robert Wellesley Cole, Iris Gioia and Clifford Thurlow interview the people they meet on a trip to Eastern Europe at a pivotal moment in the history of the region, in 1990; the Dar family describe how their lives as carpet sellers are impacted by the tumultuous history of Kashmir; Forrest Carter leaves a unique record of Cherokee life in 1930s Tennessee, and Glückel of Hamelin recounts the highs and lows of her days in the Jewish community of Hamburg with such immediacy that it is hard to believe she was writing almost 400 years ago.

As usual, we have no shortage of local interest – read about Joe Nixon starting up a youth club in 1950s Notting Hill, Mary Wylde a 1930s Kensington housewife, and life at Holland Park School in the 80s as recounted by John-Paul Flintoff (I can vouch for the accuracy of that particular account, being an ex-Holland Park pupil of exactly Flintoff’s vintage)!

Again as always, our  Biography Collection yields a rich harvest – Isobel Charman’s “The Great War, the People’s Story” looks at the impact of that huge conflict on ordinary citizens, R. J. W. Selleck’s “Not so Eminent Victorians” finds 19th century immigrants to Australia building an education system to transform people’s lives, and there are socio-cultural studies of a typically progressive kind from the 60s, taking a sample of 14 year old school children or of young people in care and interviewing them about their hopes and dreams.  Many people have chosen to write about their working lives – so we have a survey of working people from Hackney in the 1930s, and stories of countless professions including taxi driver, station master, nurse, teacher, miner, shop assistant and cowboy.

It’s not quite true to say that all of the writers featured are people you’ll never have heard of.  Some of the people featured in these books later became famous, sometimes through the books themselves – Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, for example, is a classic of rural British memoir, and Jennifer Worth has become familiar to all through her “Call the Midwife” books and their enormously successful TV adaptation.  But all of them are accounts of life before fame or fortune had visited, when they were deep in the obscurity of ordinary life.

What is proven by these commonplace, everyday memoirs is that, in fact, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  These writers are visited by extraordinary and sometimes deeply strange turns of events. Some go on to do unusual things that take them far from their beginnings. They are caught up in epic moments of world history.  But even if they simply live out their lives in relatively uneventful ways, they show that every life is in its own way remarkable, and that the voices of those who have never sat at a high table or stepped on a red carpet are often the voices that tell us most about who we were and are.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Edited to add –

If you’re interested to read more about some of the people mentioned in this post, do take a look at the eResources we have on biographies such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These are free to use with your Kensington and Chelsea library card.

50th anniversary of the moon landing

Fifty years ago, the relationship of people to the moon changed forever in a way our ancestors could scarcely have imagined.  For millennia, people all over the world had watched the moon, worshipped it, immortalised it in poetry and song, attributed all kinds of influences to it, and acquired scientific understanding of it.  On 21 July 1969, hours after landing their spacecraft on 20 July, two human beings actually walked on it.

This moment has become iconic, and it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had at the time.  Twenty per cent of the world’s population watched the ghostly glowing images of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong taking those “giant steps for mankind” (and this at a time when there was far less electronic imagery in people’s lives than there is now).  It was the subject of the BBC’s first ever all-night broadcast, and even fifty years later still boasts the fifth largest TV audience of all time.

Knowing that the mission of Apollo 11 was successful, it is hard to remember that at the time this success was far from taken for granted; President Nixon’s speech writer prepared a just-in-case address to be read if the two astronauts failed to get back safely to their craft and had to be abandoned to a lunar death.  In the event, the joy of the interplanetary phone call in which Nixon congratulated them as they stood on the moon was sustained by their safe return.

The cumbersome movements of the heavily-suited men on the moon’s surface was the culmination of the 15-year-old Space Race, one of the key battles of the Cold War – after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter outer space in 1961, the USA was determined not to lose out on another extra-terrestrial “first”.

As always, our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library doesn’t disappoint, and has yielded a host of astronauts, cosmonauts, astronomers, space engineers and astrophysicists for this month’s display.  We can read Buzz Aldrin’s own descriptions of his moon walk in his evocatively titled “Magnificent Desolation”, in which he also writes movingly of the painful struggles of his life on earth.  We have some books produced (in English) in the Soviet Union – a 1962 edition of the memoirs of “Hero of the Soviet Union – Soviet Cosmonaut no. 1” Yuri Gagarin, and another from 1979 with the story of the Soviet side of the Space Race described in dramatic prose.

We have some fascinating biographies of some of the men and women whose scientific work helped pave the way for the moon landing  –  like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, sometimes called “the greatest woman astronomer of all time”, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983, who was still a teenager when his formulation of the “Chandrasekhar Limit” led to the discovery of neutron stars and black holes.

Placing the moon landing within its context in the history of science, we have some wonderful books on the great minds who moved forward understanding of the universe in previous centuries – find Newton, Einstein, Corpenicus, Kepler, Galileo and Hawking in biographies that illuminate all their faces and phases.

Space exploration will continue to develop – and, despite having been walked on by mere mortals, the moon retains its mysterious beauty, and continues to inspire love songs.  That hazily-filmed moment in 1969 still haunts all those who witnessed it live, and still resonates with the sense of how tiny we are, and how great we can be.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Victorian diaries in our Biography Collection

Our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is home to many different kinds of biographical book, and that includes a large number of diaries.  These provide a very special kind of insight into a people’s lives.

Some diaries have become vital parts of the world’s heritage and have been read by millions, like those of Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys.  Some are the private jottings of ordinary people, whose experience of key moments in history have made them invaluable witnesses.  Others, kept by the famous, may have been written with at least one eye on posterity, or may have been intended to be private, and now afford a glimpse behind the public mask.

Diaries can mix records of hugely significant events and musings on enormous philosophical questions with the minutiae of everyday life – so the Pre-Rapahelite artists documented by William Michael Rossetti debate the meaning of art one minute and complain about faulty stovepipes, sore throats and toothache the next (many diaries reveal the chronic discomfort of life in earlier periods), and George Bernard Shaw meticulously records the prices of the train tickets, newspapers and ginger beer he purchased on the way to lecture engagements at which he speculated about the future of humanity.

This year’s Cityread London showcased the fictional London diary of a young Muslim woman in Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.  We wanted to plan an event to link our Biography Collection to this, and were also mindful of the fact that it was the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, down the road at Kensington Palace, on 24 May.  The idea of having a look at some of the diaries in our collection that were kept by diverse London residents and visitors during Victoria’s reign gave me a great opportunity to dip into some wonderful examples of one of my favourite kinds of biography, eventually selecting thirteen different voices to try to give some snapshots of London life between 1837 and 1901.

Given that most diaries in this period – and certainly most of those published – were kept by the well-to-do, it was a challenge to find the voices of those in more humble circumstances, but the diary of Hannah Cullwick gives a unique insight into the life of a domestic servant, and the struggles of the destitute were shockingly recorded by minister’s daughter Helen G. McKenny as she made philanthropic visits in the Old Street area.

I was fascinated to read about Keshub Chandra Sen’s visit to London to promote links between British and Indian social reformers, and to discover that Leo Tolstoy’s visit to a school in Chelsea as part of research into setting up schools for the peasant children on his Russian estate, left a legacy of 24 individual school boys’ accounts of a single day in 1861, on which they studied, played, fought, had boating accidents and acted as fences for stolen goods, amongst other things.

Local Kensington detail gave Marion Sambourne’s diaries an especial charm, and the fact that Malik’s Cityread book continues the genre of the humorous fictional diary which has given us Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, allowed me to look at a Victorian fictional diary – Happy Thoughts by F. C. Burnand – which graced the pages of Punch 20 years before its more famous successor The Diary of a Nobody, (which Burnand edited), and which is still laugh-out-loud funny over 140 years later.  Of course, Queen Victoria herself was a prolific diarist, and extracts from her own writings revealed a remarkable juxtaposition of the stately and the intimately domestic.

The bulk of our Biography Collection dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (although of course it comes right up to date with some very recent publications, and our oldest book dates from the early seventeenth century), so this was also a good opportunity to look at some of the physical aspects of our Victorian books.  The late Victorians loved the glamorous glitz of gilding on their bindings, and many biographies of this period sport beautifully detailed medallion portraits of their subjects.

It’s always very evocative to look at the handwritten inscriptions, personal bookplates, school prize labels and typically ornate library stamps of this period – in the spine of one book I found part of a Victorian newspaper advert, and the wonders of the Internet allowed me to reconstruct the full text.

This unique collection contains a treasure trove of insights and knowledge, not only in the content of the books, but also in their physical fabric, which gives a fascinating sense of the Victorians who wrote, published, bound, decorated, inscribed, catalogued and kept them, preserving them in private and public libraries until they found their way to our collection, where we can enjoy them today.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced on Wednesday 5 June; and well done to Tayari Jones’ with her book An American Marriage.

We’d already blogged about some of the titles on this year’s shortlist.

And here are our thoughts about the others, including this year’s winner.

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My Sister the Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite

Set in Nigeria and, as the title suggests, this novel is about two sisters, one a beautiful serial killer and the other a plain nurse who cleans up after her sister’s crimes.  This is not really a crime thriller, but a dark comedy.  The book is energetic and very funny.  It surprises and delights and has a young feel about it.  The younger sister, Ayoola, is at once a seductive beauty, a cold-blooded killer, a spoilt daughter and a young woman preoccupied with fashion and social media.  The older sister, Korede, is serious and dutiful by contrast, in love with a doctor she works with who inevitably falls for her Ayoola.  The sisters’ relationship is complex – competitive and antagonistic, but they are partners, each one suffering in their own way and both needing the other.  This book stayed with me and I loved its vibrant style.  It can seem a little like a soap opera, but what is done very well and what lingers after the story is finished, is the view of a society that perpetuates violence against women on many levels.  Like Circe and Ordinary People, it has a lot to say about what it means to be a woman and women’s complex relationships with each other.  This book stood out as highlighting important issues is a very clever, funny and new way.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Middle sister lives in a world where it is dangerous to be interesting, dangerous to have a name or to name others; a world where what is said or unsaid can have devastating consequences. Middle sister tries to keep to herself but when Milkman takes an interest in her the rumours begin to spread.

When I started this it felt like science fiction or dystopia but as I learned more about Middle Sister’s world I started to think perhaps this was closer to home than I thought. It cleverly exposes the absurdity of what we are willing to accept as normal. It has an unusual structure as it is written almost as a stream of consciousness and the story jumps around a lot chronologically. It is so original that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve read before. I think one of the most striking things is how current and of the moment it feels and so I was not surprised it won.

 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker 

‘The Silence of the Girls’ is the perfect title for Pat Barker’s reimagining of ‘The Iliad’ told through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is the cause of the infamous quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles and yet in Homer’s version, although we get to hear powerful speeches from both the men, Briseis remains silent. Pat Barker finally gives her a voice.

Despite being based on a myth, the story feels incredibly real as Pat Barker doesn’t shy aware from writing about the realities of war. The war camp is filled with the rats, disease and the constant threat of violence. Barker shows how Briseis and the other women become objects belonging to the men who yesterday killed their husbands and brothers.

Most of the book is told in the first person from Briseis’s viewpoint, but about half way through we also get chapters in the close third person, from Achilles perspective. Achilles character is beautifully portrayed in all his cruelty and violence, but he never becomes just a monster, he is always a real man with complex emotions. Despite this, I much preferred Briseis’s chapters and wonder if the book would lose anything if it was told only in her voice.

There has been a flurry of feminist retellings of myths recently but I think this is one of the best. It made me look at ‘The Iliad’ differently and it raises questions about who gets to tell our stories. At one point in the novel Briseis tries to run away from Achilles and chose her own fate, but she is unable to do so. She concludes that she can never escape the story that ultimately belongs to Achilles.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 

An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial. They are a young married couple planning their “American dream” future together when the unthinkable happens and Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. We watch as their plans for their lives unravel and we hear the story from the viewpoint of three different characters.

It is difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away, because there are a few surprise twists and turns that I didn’t expect. It deals with themes of loyalty, family, history, race and the American justice system. All three of the main characters are so realistically portrayed with all their dreams and faults that you are always invested in their stories, even if you don’t always find them likeable.

Although I felt some of the other books in the shortlist were more innovative, this is one of the most beautifully written. I love the way Tayari Jones weaves words together. I also found it very moving. For me the letters Roy and Celestial write to each other while he is in prison were the most powerful. Several chapters near the middle of the book are made up of just these letters and it is handled so skilfully that it’s all we need to move the story along.

Fiona and Phillipa, Brompton Library



Women’s Prize Shortlist – Part 1

In this series of posts, we will be reviewing the books shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was announced on Monday 29 April.

Circe by Madeline Miller

In this retelling of Circe’s story, Miller takes us into the world of ancient Greece from a female viewpoint.  Most commonly known as the enchantress who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and him into her lover, Circe comes to life in this gripping and well-told tale.  She still turns men who displease her into pigs, but the story adds flesh to her bones and turns her from a female stereotype, into a goddess with a lot of earthly humanity.

Starting life in the court of her father, Helios the Sun God, Circe discovers that she can use flowers to transform people.  When she innocently admits her magical powers to her father, he banishes her to the island of Aeaea.  On her island, Circe lives in a house filled with everything she needs, surrounded by trees and beaches, alone except for the lions that live with her and the creatures of the woods.  She is visited by several interesting characters such as Medea and Odysseus, which feels like having access to secret stories and conversations. The island is both a great freedom and a prison for Circe and we see her, over the few thousand years of the story, struggle with her fate and isolation, grow into her power, fall in love and watch those she has loved die.

There is a lot of debate about whether it is right to retrospectively empower ancient characters.  Circe is three dimensional and flawed.  She stays true to herself despite her isolation, and does not resort to the power games of the male dominated world of the gods, but she is also not afraid to use her power.  She serves men graciously when it suits her but is not afraid to use her powers when it doesn’t.

This is an engrossing novel that is difficult to put down.  A review says it should be read in one sitting.  Quite long to be read all at once, but a great holiday read or for a time when you can dedicate a few hours at a time to it.


Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Set in London in 2008 following the election of Barak Obama, two couples are in crisis.  In an interview with the author on the Women’s Prize website, the author says that she wanted to write a story about how marriage effects both men and women and she does this very well, letting all the characters be both likeable and flawed.  The novel covers a lot of ground including motherhood, modern relationships, race, identity, home, ancestral and historical ties, but does so with a deft hand, bringing all these layers together and weaving them around each other.

Through the novel, she takes us into the routine, day-to-day family life and transforms it with her colourful, rhythmic writing.  She really takes time to tell the story, bringing small details to life, while keeping a steady ebb and flow to the pace of the melodic writing.  Music features throughout, bringing us closer to the characters, who they are and what they are going through emotionally.  The couples weave in and out of each other’s lives, physically and emotionally, and the past weaves into the present with memories of the early days of their relationships and references to parents, grandparents and distant countries of origin.

London features vividly throughout with many references to Chrystal Palace both now and historically, the 176 bus route lined with chicken shops, a wedding in Greenwich, shopping at Selfridges and bridges over the Thames.  The city is brought to life, its colours, intensity, its moods and its history, and it looms large even though ultimately it is the backdrop to the slower, subtler journey of the characters.  I found the book funny, engaging and incredibly moving and I enjoyed the feeling of being told a story, the music references and all the layers that Evans creates from the ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people.

Watch this space as the winner will be announced Wednesday 5 June.

Library Customer Service Officer, Brompton Library

A world of writers from the Biography Collection

As we look forward to celebrating World Book Night on Tuesday 23 April, this month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library brings together biographies of great twentieth century writers in languages other than English. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Han Suyin who wrote in English but whose autobiographical works are considered some of the greatest records of modern Chinese history and Wole Soyinka whose Anglophone work is pivotal to African literature.

Including many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a parade of some of world literature’s greatest voices, some of whom waited many years to be translated into English. Some are household names, some less well known outside their own continents; all open worlds of artistic beauty and cultural insight, and their biographies allow us to follow the experiences of how great writers develop in very different cultures and environments.

In a departure from our usual displays, which include only books from our Biography Collection, we have this month included some of the fiction by these writers alongside their biographies and memoirs, in the hope readers will discover some less familiar gems.  From Chile’s Isabel Allende to Austria’s Stefan Zweig, including Finland’s Tove Jansson (better known as an artist, her exquisite short stories were not available in English until decades after she wrote them); India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Japan’s Junichuro Tanizaki, Isaac Bashevis Singer who brought his native Yiddish from Poland to the US and became the custodian of a vanished culture and many, many more, discover a world of writers on our shelves.

Happy World Book night from us to you all, happy reading!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library